How did you go on, when there was nowhere to go?
They cleaned. They scrubbed and rearranged and of course, they built. But even Raven had cracked and fallen apart every time they tried to fly her.
In the end, hadn’t it all just been a prelude to this?
Kio struggled as the icy rime came closer. Soon, crystals were forming on his clothing, on the tips of his hair. The cold was a knife, a lead blanket, a monster. He couldn’t think clearly.
He didn’t know what he was struggling against. How could memories be this real, this physical? He knew that day had been ten years ago, more, and yet it was still all he could do to reach Karla again.
She coughed, but the dark glass remained in her eyes. Maybe she was still in there, watching the bodies fall.
I can’t let her die here. She’s supposed to go the surface.
He couldn’t drag her behind him without making everything worse for both of them. He had to leave her. Had to go find something that could help.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, though she couldn’t hear him.
Moving was an agony. He was shaking so hard from the cold and the memory, and every one of his muscles was paralyzed. With effort, he managed to lift his eyes to the room.
The long solarium curved upward ahead of him. As an inner citadel room, it would have a ladder or a staircase, which he could climb, and find…something. To help Karla and put the gas back and fix everything.
His eyes settled on one of the burned velvet chairs. Suddenly he felt drawn to it. Somebody had sat in that chair, regularly–someone important. But touching it, even looking at it, might trigger another memory, and who knew when he’d come out of that?
As he shivered uncontrollably, though, another thought occurred to him. What if diving into the memories was the only way forward? What if that was where he would find the way to save himself and Karla?
It was more worth a try than anything else he could think of to do.
He focused on the chair. It had been a man’s favorite, a man Kio knew extremely well, for he figured into practically every memory he kept of the days before Year Zero.
He didn’t see one of those, however. He didn’t even see his father in this room, the one he had loved so much.
He saw what he’d seen every time. More of that day. Another piece of the puzzle.
“Kio!” A booming voice rang through the corridors. “Son! Kio!”
There was no mistaking the call of Sieno Rokhshan. But why was he here? He should have been up on the towers, commanding the fight against the invaders from the surface. Kio had wandered out of the machine courtyard and into a statuary room full of plush chairs, where he sheltered, rain-soaked, under a tapestry hanging from a windowsill.
Footsteps grew louder, then a curtain opposite Kio flew aside. Seven-foot, red-haired Sieno Rokhshan stood against a sky that was turning ever greener. He opened his mouth to shout again, but doubled over in a coughing fit.
Kio abandoned his sodden tapestry and ran to his father. When Sieno caught him around the neck, the boy felt a chill that had nothing to do with rain. His dad, Lord Rokhshan of Nashido, was leaning on him for support.
“Have you stayed out of the air, son?” Sieno asked, bracing himself with a hand against the cold floor. “Have you breathed the ash cloud?”
Kio hadn’t been outside for ten minutes. He shook his head.
“Good.” His father rose to a squat, and his light blue eyes met Kio’s. “Why in the Benefactor’s name aren’t you in the great hall with the rest of the young?”
Kio found his voice. “Didn’t feel safe.”
Sieno put his arms around his son. Kio was so small his father could clasp opposite elbows behind his back. He rested his stubbly chin on Kio’s shoulder. “My cautious son. You can’t run off without telling anyone where you’re going, understand?”
Shivering from the rain, Kio nodded.
“It doesn’t matter now, anyway.” The Lord of Rokhshan pulled back and set hands on his heir’s shoulders. “You may have been correct about the great hall. The invaders mean to clip Nashido’s wings. If they try to defeat us by destroying the castle, the hall will fall easily. As will this one.”
Suddenly, Kio’s feet felt unsteady, like the sitting room was already being sheared right out from under him by a landling sword. He clung to his father’s shoulders to stay standing. “Which rooms are safe?”
Sieno’s eyes flickered up to the highest tower, trying to see the battle through the fringe of the ash cloud. But the towers were quiet, save for the abandoned gliders drifting around them. The invaders were filling the halls of Castle Nashido.
“I can only be certain of one,” he said. “The Heartsphere.”
“I was going there, father.”
Sieno shook his head. “Not the walls. Inside.”
“What?” Kio forgot himself. He sprang back from his father as Sieno coughed again, deeper and longer. “But we can’t go in the Heartsphere. It’s the first law of the Benefactor. Cousin Lethis tried, and we had…we had to…”
“Lethis didn’t respect Nashido’s power, or the Benefactor’s. You do, Kio. More than anyone.” Once more, he hugged his son, then stood and turned–crouched slightly, like he was preparing for battle with the ash cloud. “If a mistake from the surface tries to enter, Nashido will turn them to ash. And the Benefactor will smile.”
“Wait!” Kio called, but Sieno Rokhshan raced into the ash cloud without turning, stopping only once to double over coughing. Kio stood frozen, unable to fix his father’s face in his mind, to believe he hadn’t looked back. Disbelief rooted him to the spot until the door in the opposite wall slammed shut and blocked the Lord of Nashido from view.
He couldn’t hide in the heartsphere. They’d banish him, like Lethis, even if he told them he’d done it to escape the landlings. He would do what he’d planned to, hide in the keep around the sphere and dodge the invaders until he couldn’t any longer.
Kio took deep breaths. The statues leered down at him. His father had run into the keep that surrounded the heartsphere, and Kio had to follow. But that meant running through the ash cloud. And what if the landlings were in there already? And what if the heartsphere failed somehow, plummeted to the surface?
He shook his head at the last thought. Blasphemy. A Rokhshan didn’t fear heights.
He gulped in one more breath of air, only choking a little as it hit his throat, and ran.
In the present, Kio thought ecstatically, they cared, they cared. The thought of his father’s touch lent strength into his limbs. Not every memory was terrible. And they’d never truly been alone up here.
It was enough for him to crawl to Karla, where he faltered, seeing that she hadn’t changed. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close, warmed her with what little warmth he had left to give.
“I saw my father,” he whispered in her ear. “Karla, people tried to help us. People wanted us to live. Remember them, Karla? You must have had someone like that for you, right?”
What was the name? The one she swore by? It was as good a guess as any.
“Mara,” he said to her. “Remember Mara. Remember what she did to save you.”
Kio, of course, didn’t know what a mistake he was making by saying that. But neither did Karla, in the moment. She was too far away from reality, too rooted back in that day.
Just as Karla was starting to think the great castle in the sky was nothing but towers and bridges, they entered the sphere keep. Almon and Kevin fell back into the ranks, Almon’s nose turning useless as the ash cloud thickened.
“See the curving floor?” Mara pointed with her sword. “This is the fortress the earliest Rokhshan built. They claim that Benefactor of theirs laid it out personally.”
Looking around the room, Karla could believe the hands of a god had put it together. Red silk carpeted the gently sloping floor, soft and warm on her chilled bare feet. Stained glass, shaded green by the ash cloud, filled broad windows that the rain pounded on. Strange gilded objects hung from the walls or rested upended on tables, while bits of wood and strong-smelling berries crunched under the Harpooneer’s feet. Karla’s eyes fixed on a chandelier, its crystals half glittering with pale ashlight and half stained with burns and melted wax.
Kevin ran his gloved hand along the books on a shelf, tracing paths through the dust on their spines. “Think they ever read these?”
“We should be more concerned with that.” Mara pointed at the flagstones between the stained-glass windows, where nails had been hammered into the walls. Karla tugged at her mother’s hand to get closer. The dusty outline of a sword longer than she was tall hung above the nails.
She sneezed. “Mommy, why is there so much dust?”
“Because the people who live here don’t know how to clean without their slaves.” Mara looked up at the chandelier. Somehow the Rokhshan could light it–probably with sky magic–but they couldn’t clean it.
Karla’s mother was still looking at the chandelier when the thumps came from below. Dozens of voices shouted, wordless cries that surrounded the room. They came from the doors at either end, from underneath the floor.
“Defend the doors!” Mara shouted. “They can’t tunnel through flagstone!”
As the Harpooneers rushed to pile furniture against the doors, she cast her eyes around, then pulled Karla across the silk carpet toward the little space between two bookshelves. The last thing she saw before her mother blocked her view of the room was Almon, sniffing at the air with his face contorted while Kevin drew his short scoutsword.
More shouting from below, nearly resolving into words. “You’re to hide,” Mara told her, “do you understand?”
“No!” Karla backed against the inner wall. “I’m staying with you. We’re fighting together.”
“Not this time,” Mara said, her breath shallow. “Not this fight.”
Both barricades, tables and chairs stacked high, burst outward. The fighters stepped back, preparing to meet the Rokhshan counterattack. Karla saw tears streaking her mother’s face–well, then, all the more important for her not to cry.
Turning around, she discovered what Mara had seen on this patch of the wall: a little catch, near Karla’s eye level. She took hold of the handle. Her mother wrapped two fingers over Karla’s hand, and helped her swing the small door wide. Beyond was a cupboard with two dusty, empty shelves. Mara leaned in and pulled the shelves free, leaving a space just big enough for Karla.
More pounding on the barricades. The chandelier clinked, a sound like a thousand pearl necklaces were dropping onto the castle’s roof. Karla slid herself sideways into the cupboard to see if she could–it was cramped, but she had a bit of room to wiggle.
She rolled out and got to her feet, but her mother stopped her with a hand on her chest. “Don’t. Stay hidden.”
Karla blinked, forcing herself not to do anything stupid. She wasn’t some kid anymore. She’d been through war.
“You’re the Harpooneer that survives, Karla.” Mara wiped her face with the hand not holding her sword. “You have to live, no matter what.”
Karla nodded. A chair went flying, nearly striking one of the fighters, as the far door swung open.
“Say it!” Mara urged.
“I have to live,” Karla repeated. “No matter what.”
With the heel of her hand, her mother pushed her back into the tiny cupboard. The last thing Karla saw before she curled up in the dark space was a Rokhshan in purple-and-gold-trim uniform holding a flaming torch aloft, while more points of light burst in behind him.
Mara shut the door. There was no handle on the inside. Even the sickly green light didn’t filter through. Karla huddled in the pitch black.
The sky tore open, and all the gods screamed in her ear.
Kio had seen something that made him want to keep going. Fine for him. It couldn’t have felt like this.
He’d gotten a second wind. She’d just gotten a reminder of what was nipping at her heels. But on Nashido, maybe that was the same thing.
She was the Harpooneer who would survive. She was the one who had to.
With a guttural growl, she let Kio help her to her feet. They set off, without speaking, deeper into the Inner Citadel.
I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!
Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.